Study Guide

Joe Rantz (The Boys in the Boat) in Olympics Books

By Various Authors

Joe Rantz (The Boys in the Boat)

The Rowing Version of Rudy

Rudy. We Are Marshall. The Blind Side. And who can forget the classics like Rocky?

All of these movies have one thing in common: the underdog defeating incredible odds and all expectations, coming from behind and winning gold and glory. So get ready to add one more movie to that list: the adaptation of the book by Daniel James Brown called The Boys in the Boat. It tells the story of Joe Rantz…an underdog if we've ever seen one.

He Actually Has An Evil Stepmother

His story starts out pretty rough right from the start. He was born in 1914, and lived a relatively normal life until he lost his mother at the tender age of three. Then, this poor kid gets abandoned by his father, adopted by his brother, taken back by his father and evil stepmother, only to be abandoned again, then taken back again, and then finally left for good by the age of fifteen.

Yeah. Joe Rantz makes Cinderella's home life look functional.

So from an early age Joe had been forced to provide for himself in ways most people can't even fathom, while also being taught that family means just about zip.

Real Life Fairy Tale

So when he's recruited to join the University of Washington's rowing team based on his tall build and athletic physique, he has to work baling hay and paving highways for fifteen months after high school graduation in order to pay for himself to go to college.

Once there, though, he becomes part of a freshman rowing team that was surprisingly good. So good, in fact, that Rantz's team never lost a four-mile collegiate race.

Rowing in a nine-man shell (don't you dare call it a boat) is a process filled with grueling workouts, psychological feats of endurance, and a good deal of physical pain. To add insult to injury, up until Rantz's team came along it had been a sport that only catered to the upper class elites.

So not only were the University of Washington's guys relatively new to the sport, but they came from a much humbler background than their competitors.

So even though Rantz had it worse than most, he wasn't the only guy struggling to make ends meet. And remember: this was the Great Depression. They weren't just struggling, they were starving. Once they were accepted to compete in the 1936 Olympics, they literally went door to door with hats in hand to ask for monetary donations…because otherwise they couldn't have afforded to go.

Good Versus Evil

That should've been enough to cement their underdog status, but it gets even better. The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. That's right: Nazi Germany. Hitler wanted to prove his theory of Aryan domination to the world, and the Olympics were the perfect venue. The author describes the set-up perfectly:

It's harder to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blond oarsmen in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests. (Source)

And then: they did the unimaginable. Those rag-tag American boys won the gold medal, edging out Italy and Germany's shells by fractions of a second. And Hitler was there, watching the whole shebang.


So anyway, back to Rantz. All of these experiences had a profound impact on the guy, but the most important thing he took away from it all was the lesson that he could, indeed, trust in his fellow human beings.

The bond between the guys in that shell was forged under incredible circumstances, and their relationship was what he valued the most long after the 1936 Games had faded from popular memory.

Actually, the reason we call the boat a "shell" is because to Rantz, "the boat" refers to the guys who rowed with him. They collectively became The Boat. (Feel the boat. Be one with the boat. Be the boat.) So, when Rantz agreed to tell his story to Daniel James Brown, he did so under one condition: that the author write about all the boys in The Boat, and what they'd all sacrificed to win the gold right under Hitler's nose.